Guelph Artist Laurie McGaw uses Portraiture to Celebrate Black History Month

Laurie McGaw Portraits cropped

February is Black History Month and Canadians are invited to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements and stories of Black Canadians. Reflecting and honoring the legacy and contributions of the country’s Black communities both past and present, acclaimed Guelph portrait artist and GAC member Laurie McGaw shares her portrait paintings along of African Canadians featuring familiar faces in Guelph and Canadian greats like jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. The group exhibition featuring Laurie McGaw and guest artists was held in her studio at 28C Douglas St earlier this month.

Portrait exhibition celebrating Black History Month at Laurie McGaw Gallery, 28C Douglas St
Photo credit: Barbara Salsberg Mathews 

Laurie McGaw is well known for her vibrant portraits of such renowned figures as jazz artists Oscar Peterson and Gene Di Novi and film director Norman Jewison. She is also known for her award-winning illustrated books: Polar the Titanic Bear, nominated for a Governor General’s Award, has sold over 680,000 copies in five languages. A New York Times review described her portraits for African Princess as “stunning”; she was honored for her work by the NAACP. Portraiture has been featured on four collector’s coins that she has designed for the Royal Canadian Mint, including the 2007 proof silver dollar and a $300 gold coin series celebrating the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

GAC sat down with Laurie to ask her a few questions about her love of painting people, and her one-day art exhibition that was part of Guelph Black Heritage Society’s series of events that celebrated Black History Month.  

Laurie McGaw Big John
Laurie McGaw (left) with “Big John” Leacock, Guelph realtor and Guelph Black Heritage Society affiliate (right).
One of the familiar faces featured 
in Laurie’s portrait exhibition. Photo credit: Barbara Salsberg Mathews 

Q: Can you share your experience and process as a portrait painter?

A: I think it’s interesting to have to spent time with a person. When models are sitting with me, they have to keep their faces still and they are often reflecting on something. Over time when they start to relax, some of their personalities start to come forward and different expressions come through. Then I decide which one of those expressions I want to bring out. As a portrait painter I try to capture their personality, true to what I see.

Q: How do you decide who to paint?

A: I find every face interesting and intriguing. I am constantly looking at people on the street and the faces of people I know. I’ve painted many faces and each one is a different challenge.

Every Sunday between 10:00 a.m.-1 p.m. in my studio, I run a live model portrait painting session that is open to the public. Since I am always looking for models, if I see someone who has a distinct look, I just ask them if they want to be a model for my class.

For larger portrait paintings, I like to paint someone who really fascinates me. An example that comes to mind is Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. After one of Oscar’s concerts, I directly approached his manager about the possibility of painting Oscar’s portrait. He agreed. And I spent a wonderful afternoon in his home in Mississauga painting his portrait. Today Oscar Peterson’s portrait is owned by a collector at the University of Toronto and has been used for the book cover of Oscar Peterson’s biography by Jack Batten.

 Crazy Jim Laurie McGaw
Jim Livingston, associated with radio station CFRU. Another local Guelphite
featured in Laurie’s group portrait exhibition. Photo credit: Barbara Salsberg Mathews 

Q: Reflecting on Black History Month in Canada, what role do you think the arts or artists have in society?

A:  There are so many wonderful histories and stories of people and individuals. I think the arts can bring into focus these stories and the lives of interesting people.

Interested in signing up for Laurie’s weekend painting classes or purchasing her art work? Contact [email protected]. Donations are welcome to Guelph Black Heritage Society.

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